Although the Better Access program was not specifically designed to address complex family difficulties, the reality is that when one person in a family is struggling it inevitably has a big impact on the rest of the family, and that can lead to depression and other conditions that cause a person to seek psychological support. There are a broad range of situations where individual family members struggle with serious and complex problems, which can in turn, lead to secondary mental health disorders. In many cases this leads to a GP referral to receive psychological services the Better Access program.
As a case in point, young people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often experience chronic secondary anxiety and mood disorders which can be addressed through psychological services. Whilst the Better Access does not specifically cover Aspergers, Autism, or non-Verbal Learning disability per se, it does cover the secondary mood disorders, anxiety disorders, social skills training, parent management training, and other related problems that family members can experience around these conditions. Since ASD is a chronic condition, the proposed cuts to the Better Access program are devastating to such families. Mental health practitioners have reported to us that they typically see several members of the family to address these problems. These specialised practitioners explain that in such families you can have a situation where a father has undiagnosed Aspergers (needing help with depression, anxiety and social skills training), a mother has an anxiety disorder, a child who has diagnosed Aspergers syndrome, and a sibling who is depressed because of the difficulties in his family. As you can see, this is a very complex set of problems to manage within 18 sessions per year, let alone just 10 sessions: the amount that will remain after the planned cuts.
People may ask whether there are other treatment services available, but the reality is that these are few and far between. Mental health practitioners have advised us that Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) do not provide assistance for ASD, as it is not classed as a ‘mental illness’ as such and CAMHS are often struggling to meet the needs of other complex conditions amongst young people. And whilst there are Medicare-funded services for Autism, these cover a once off period of treatment for 20 appointments for a single child in their lifetime, divided between psychologists, speech pathologists, and occupational therapists, and with the proviso that all approved sessions must be used before the young person turns 15 years old. By itself, these services do very little to address the secondary anxiety and mood disorders that are typical in such cases. Previously, the Better Access program picked up these cases, but after the planned cuts, families in these situations will be left in the lurch.
We have focused here on Autism Spectrum Disorders, but the same principle applies to a host of other developmental and psychological conditions, physical disabilities, and other conditions that affect whole families. We are concerned, along with thousands of other members of the general community, that the new restrictions on access to psychological services will make it harder for families to cope in these unfortunate situations.